Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

The Elements of a Scene: Character Arc
(June 15, 2011)

This is the sixth in a series analyzing a scene from The Grapes of Wrath. This entry is about character arc.

People change. They change as they age and as they experience new things. In drama, the conflict is a crucible for altering the main character's view of the world and him- or herself.

Using Casablanca as an example, the Humphrey Bogart character starts out emotionally dead due to a failed love affair. His past political activities and his way of relating to others have both been frozen. When he is forced to confront his lost love, he undergoes a painful transformation. By the end of the film, he is once more alive emotionally and committed politically. The thaw that takes place over the course of the story is the Bogart character's arc.

As John Truby writes in The Anatomy of Story,

“Drama is a code of maturity. The focal point is the moment of change, the impact, when a person breaks free of habits and weaknesses and ghosts from his past and transforms to a richer and fuller self. The dramatic code expresses the idea that human beings can become a better version of themselves, psychologically and morally. And that’s why people love it.”

Sometimes, the inability to change is the point of the story. If you are familiar with the film From Here to Eternity (based on the novel by James Jones, screenplay by Daniel Taradash and directed by Fred Zinnemann), the three main characters, played by Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra, are all incapable of change. As a result, each loses something due to their unwillingness to bend.

Within the larger film of The Grapes of Wrath, the main character arc is that of Tom Joad, played by Henry Fonda. Over the course of the film he is exposed to how his family and people like them are treated. As a result, he goes from being concerned only with his family to a larger class consciousness.

In the scene above, the protagonist is Pa Joad, trying to buy a loaf of bread. But he has no character arc. He leaves the scene with the same mindset as when he entered it. The arcs in this scene belong to the antagonist, the waitress, and also to the truck drivers. She starts out resisting Pa's request and slowly awakens to the Joads' situation as she hears Pa's explanations and sees the children staring at the candy. Like Tom in the larger story, she achieves something of a class consciousness as a result of her encounter.

The same can be said of the truck drivers. They start out resolutely neutral, saying nothing during the conversation between Pa and the waitress. After the waitress lies about the cost of the candy so that the Joads can afford it, the truckers are also moved to declare their solidarity with what's gone on by refusing their change.

Character arc is a problem when it comes to characters who are part of a series. An arc implies a change of worldview, yet a series character can't change without losing the very qualities that make the character popular in the first place. Homer Simpson can never wise up. Regardless of what he might learn in an episode, he has to forget it by the start of the next if he's to stay Homer Simpson. No real person could live Homer Simpson's life without getting smarter or getting killed.

But if a story is self contained, a character's change or lack of it is the whole point.